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Liz Sandals speaks to the media in this Feb. 11, 2013 photo.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Discovery math has been dealt another blow, with Ontario's Education Minister departing from her province's curriculum guidelines and declaring that she expects school children to have a more solid grasp of the basics.

"We expect kids to know their basic math facts and we expect kids to take that understanding and that knowledge and use them together to be able to solve problems," Liz Sandals said on Tuesday. "That's actually a great homework assignment: Learn your multiplication tables."

Ms. Sandals was asked about arithmetic after Alberta's education minster, Jeff Johnson, directed his ministry to ensure that reciting the times tables and recalling other basic math facts will be "more front and centre" in the curriculum for elementary students starting this fall.

As with most other provinces, Ontario in its school curriculum requires students to know the multiplication tables and solve problems using a variety of strategies, but does not specifically state that they must memorize them.

Provincial governments have been staunch defenders of discovery math – also called inquiry-based – arguing that it gives children broader problem-solving skills. But many parents and some educators are demanding reform, and say children are lost without a strong grasp of traditional formulas and are unable to recall multiplication tables quickly.

Manitoba became the first province to respond to a push from parents and math professors when it announced curriculum revisions last fall for students in kindergarten to Grade 8. Students are now taught all four standard methods for arithmetic – addition with a carry, subtraction with a borrow, long multiplication and long division.

There is no indication Ms. Sandals will change Ontario's curriculum documents to reflect her comments that students should memorize the times tables.

Nothing prevents teachers from instructing children in basic formulas or memorizing multiplication tables, but the curriculum does not explicitly require them to do so.

The province regularly reviews its curriculum and is in the early stages of consulting experts for feedback on how math is taught, said Lauren Ramey, spokeswoman for Ms. Sandals.

Math teaching has come under scrutiny, and the curriculum has been a political football, ever since the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed in December that Canadian 15-year-olds had slipped out of the top 10, placing Canada 13th out of 65 countries.

Soon after the rankings were released, Ontario's minority Liberal government announced it was putting $4-million into better math training for teachers.

The Progressive Conservatives have proposed studying incentive pay for teachers who raise their students' math marks. The opposition has also said students need a grounding in the fundamentals before they engage in discovery learning methods.

The curriculum for Ontario's elementary students encourages them to use physical materials and actions in learning math, such as dividing a strip of paper into 10ths to learn fractions or drawing a picture. The theory is that having children work through math questions in detail, instead of simply using a formula to solve a problem or memorizing the answer, will help them understand math better and solve equations in their heads.

Opponents of discovery learning say it is far more time-consuming to deconstruct every problem than to use a simple algorithm to solve it.

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